Debra Katz Offers Thoughts on Ex-Uber Engineer's Harassment Claims

Katz Banks Kumin partner Debra Katz was quoted in an article entitled, "Uber Engineer's Claims Could Offer Lesson on How Not to Run an HR Department." In the article, author Dana Wilkie discusses ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler's sexual harassment allegations against the ride-sharing company and the role the company's human resources department could have played in enabling a hostile work environment. Commenting on the issue, Ms. Katz said, "While there are many conscientious and capable HR officials, we often encounter situations in which the HR department has essentially enabled harassment of [this] type to persist with no consequences to the harasser." Often, a corporate culture of inaction at the top plays a large role in creating a work environment conducive to harassment. Ms. Katz said, "Fowler presented HR officials with screenshots of text messages that were clear evidence of sexual harassment." If Fowler's accusations are true, she said, "it is shocking that the response to this type of evidence was to tell Fowler that it was his first infraction, when it clearly wasn't, and that she had to get over it and move on. In this manner, the HR department condoned sexual harassment and aided and abetted the retaliation that ensued." 

In companies with histories of sexual harassment, HR managers are often rendered powerless to take action. Ms. Katz noted, "Often, women or racial minorities are placed in high-level HR roles but are not given real power or autonomy.  If a company does not have a tone at the top emphasizing zero tolerance for sexual harassment, HR officials are often powerless because individuals with power…are often deemed to be untouchable. If the harasser is seen as a high income producer or a high performer, the company can be less likely to treat claims of sexual harassment with disciplinary action." Instead, the "victims of harassment—which are almost always women when they work in male-dominated professions like Fowler does—are counseled about their behavior, retaliated against if they persist with complaints, and eventually managed out."

Ms. Fowler claims that she was given a negative performance review in response to her complaints of harassment. Ms. Katz said, "I have seen situations like this many times. I have also seen managers attempt to justify such outrageous conduct by insisting that it would not affect the individual's career in any way and that the employee was too rating conscious." 

Ms. Katz noted that employers often keep repeated harassers and retaliators on board because they feel that they cannot afford to lose a high-value employee; however, in doing so, employers fail to consider the costs. These costs could span anywhere from lower morale and productivity of disillusioned workers to costly litigation, should an employee elect to sue. She concluded, "The only way to deal with a recidivist harasser and retaliator—whether the person is a high-performer or not—is to take appropriate disciplinary action, which in this case sounds like it should have been termination. Individuals with power who believe that they can harass without having any consequences will continue to do so. They believe … that their commercial success makes them indispensable and therefore bulletproof.  Such individuals are liability magnets for companies." To read the full story, click here